Children absent from school amid fears of imminent asbestos removal

Parent Sally Bunce says she feels the school has not been 'transparent' with parents.
Renee Clayton

Parent Sally Bunce says she feels the school has not been 'transparent' with parents.

Asbestos removal work at a west Auckland school has been put on hold, amid fears by parents who said they would keep their children home from school.

A joint statement from the Ministry and the Hobsonville Primary School's board of trustees has just been released.

It says, "We've listened to the concerns of a number of parents who don't feel they have been adequately informed about the work that is planned on the site. We have decided to pause further work on the site so we can provide more information about the planned work."

The scheduled work is due to take three weeks.
Renee Clayton

The scheduled work is due to take three weeks.

The statement, from head of the education infrastructure service, Kim Shannon, and chairperson of the school's board of trustees, Lance Norman, says the next logical opportunity to remove the asbestos will be during the Easter school holidays.

However, not all of the work will be completed during the holiday period.

"We would like to assure parents that we are confident that this work can be carried out safely," the statement says.

The petition was started after the removal was announced on February 10.

The petition was started after the removal was announced on February 10.

* READ MORE: Asbestos removal to go ahead at West Auckland school despite parent protest

 Around 36 parents said they would keep their children home from school on Monday as the highly debated asbestos removal was due to begin this week.

The removal of 700 tonnes of contaminated soil at a construction site beside Hobsonville School - originally scheduled to take place during school hours - was announced to parents on February 10.

Since then, around 40 families and a petition of 269 signatures on have called to delay the start date until the April holidays.

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At the time, parent Sally Bunce said she would take her son out of school for the duration of the work. 

As a member of a private parent forum on Facebook, she says parents of around 36 pupils have indicated on the board their children will be absent today. 

Bunce says she feels the school has not been "transparent" about the issue, since the soil was first dug up in October 2016, and says it does not need to be removed in school time.

As a single mother who works full-time, she says removing her son was not a decision she entered into lightly.

"They've known since at least October, and they haven't acted until all of a sudden now it has to happen - right now."

"Twenty years down the track, if we end up with six students that suddenly have asbestos- linked disease… nobody wants an apology at that time," she says.

"We have the opportunity to prevent any exposure and to get that down to zero exposure, and that option is there. So I don't understand why the school is not taking the zero option."

Bunce says she asks if alternatives such as beginning the work in the April holidays to limit exposure, temporarily relocating students to other local schools or using another company that isn't booked during the holidays, have "even been considered".

The asbestos - from a broken cement storm water pipe - was discovered when work started on a new drop-off zone last year. 

The removal work is estimated to take three weeks.

However, there are only eight working days over the April holidays during which time the Ministry of Education has advised the contractor is not available.

June is the next holiday period, but the school's board of trustees chairperson Lance Norman says they do not want to wait that long due to worries about children or animals getting into the site after hours.

The dumpsite also closes the early afternoon, restricting hours of work to during the day.  

Bunce says completing the drop-off zone is no longer such a matter of urgency as there is a new street beside the school which has opened up since the zone was first planned and has eased parking issues.

Asbestos Assessors New Zealand (AANZ) managing director John Makuru says the Ministry of Education are normally "brilliant at the controls they put into place", going over and above what's needed to protect students.

However, Makuru says works could be done outside school hours by placing soil into lined, covered bins and then transporting them completed to dump sites during school hours. 

"It's about best practice guidelines at the end of the day," he says. 

While the asbestos may be non-friable or bonded in its original state - meaning it's unlikely to crumble easily and release fibres - it can turn friable when broken.

However, he says asbestos is normally attempted to be removed in a such a way as to keep it in a non-friable state.

A fibre of asbestos can be up to 200 times smaller than the diametre of a hair.

With earthworks, the danger would depend on how much of the soil - as a percentage of cubic metres - is contaminated, with low ratings lowering the risk.

Makuru says the risk from asbestos exposure is measured on a 'dose response curve' and takes into account the frequency and time period during which asbestos exposure occurs.

Those who work in mines or builders who have cut asbestos sheets for a living, he says, have a higher chance of "contracting something than probably what there is [for] the normal person walking past a contaminated site".

For removal of non-friable asbestos - the class of asbestos found at the school - Makuru says air monitors are normally not required, but will have likely been put in place by the Ministry to protect students.

Each monitor needs to have taken in 480 litres of air - which normally takes four hours - before a reading can be made.

Anything below 0.01 fibres per millilitre is considered acceptable. The monitors pick up all kinds of fibres, not just asbestos.

"If it's below 0.01, the chances of asbestos as being one of those fibres is probably quite small."

Makuru says he also sees the risk of animals entering the site as being low, and sees education is the best way of alleviating fears and misinformation.

Norman says the school is also exceeding recommended precautions, including extending the barrier boundary to 30 rather than 20 metres, banning trucks from the school from drop-off hours and relocating classrooms which are closest to the site.

Norman was contacted but unavailable for comment. 

 - North Harbour News

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